Middlemarch – first impressions

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I have a hard time reviewing Middlemarch by George Eliot, the latest book from my Classics Club reading list. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of this classic novel with my first read. Thus I am not yet ready to analyse it but I can share a few first impressions.

The first time I read something most of my focus is on the plot, which in this case starts slow and for a long time seems to meander aimlessly. It was excellently written and still enjoyable, but if I had not trusted the author I would have questioned the length of the novel. She did have a plan though. Behind the scenes she was carefully placing her characters, nudging them in the right direction, never going against their natures but still getting everyone exactly into the right places for the final resolution. It was masterful plotting and I look forward to re-reading it so I can better notice how she was doing it.

The other thing that really struck me on this first read was the interesting and realistic characters. They are all flawed, yet most of them memorable and easy to like. I found myself cheering for them and hoping that they all, well almost all, would have happy endings. I believe they will stay with me for a long time.

The only thing I did not like in the novel are a few rather ugly antisemitic comments made by characters. I do believe they were meant to be read as prejudiced rather then reflecting the author’s own opinion (unless I lost track of the family relations the characters targeted were not Jewish), but they are jarring. Apart from that I found that the text has stood the test of time very well and I really enjoyed it.

 

 

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Progress report

Map showing the author's country of origin for the books I've read in 2018Map showing author’s country of origin for the books I have read during the first eight months of 2018.

Autumn is here, another third of the year has gone, and I believe it is time for another progress report on my reading and my reading challenges.

So far I have read 86 books in 2018, by 47 women and 35 men (and four anthologies). I have read books from eighteen decades and by authors from twenty-three countries. All-in-all I’m having an excellent reading year.

Reading challenges for 2018

Finish the unfinished 30-20-20-10 challenge from 2017 (done)

Read 12 books from countries I read no more than 1 book from in 2017 (done, 19/12 read)

Some highlights:

For simplicity all countries listed are the author’s country of birth (as far as I could tell).

Read and blog about at least 12 books from my Classics club reading list

I’m slightly behind on this challenge. So far I have only read seven books from my Classics Club list, bringing me up to a total of 12 out of 50 since my start in October 2017.

The classics from my list that I have finished are:

I also joined the Back to the classics reading challenge

Here the goal was to read classics corresponding to different categories. I have now read books for nine of the twelve categories and reviewed eight of them.

Read at least as many of my unread books (including new books) as I buy in 2018

I knew that this one would be the worst of this years challenges and yes, I am falling behind. Only by three books so far though so there is hope that I might catch-up before the end of the year.

How’s your reading coming along? Are you also having a good reading year?

 

Why everyone needs to read The Brothers Lionheart

Cherry blossomsThe time has come for me to review one of my absolute favourite books. A book I added to my Classic Club reading list just to get an excuse to re-read it (again) and review it. I’m  talking about The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta) by Astrid Lindgren.

The Brothers Lionheart is primarily a children’s book, aimed at rather young children, but it has plenty to offer older readers. Indeed it is a highly unusual and brave novel. The main-character and narrator is ten-year-old Karl Lionheart and already on the very first page we are told that he is about to die. The story is however not as bleak as it may sound. For children this is primarily a fantasy adventure which deals with sibling love, death and the nature of courage in a way no other children’s books do. It has some really dark parts but it doesn’t stay in the darkness and, as all is told from a child’s perspective, it never really scared me as a kid.

In many ways this novel is more melancholic when read as an adult. Lindgren lets us read between the lines and glimpse a sadder, but equally beautiful, story. She wrote this novel at a time when her favourite brother was seriously ill and a note of love and grief runs through the text. It may look like a children’s novel but it is not afraid to take on the big questions. The result is sad and wise and comforting.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for those of you who have yet to read it, just tell you that you should. I can’t guarantee that you will like it, it is not for everyone, but if you do it is something really special.

If you don’t mind spoilers read this excellent review, but beware, it does give away much of the plot including the ending.

I need to discuss this book with everyone and that can’t be done properly without spoilers so spoilers are welcome in the comment section for this review. If you have not read it yet, avoid the comments and go and read it instead (and do come back to let me know what you thought).

TW: Death, ableism.

Thoughts from a small cabin

Blueberry shrub in autumn coloursEver dreamt of withdrawing to an isolated cabin to get undisturbed reading time? That’s how I spent much of my vacation and fittingly one of the books I read, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, is probably the best known move-into-a-cabin-in-the-woods book there is. In it Thoreau describes his experience of living two years (1845-1847) in a simple cabin he had built himself by Walden Pond.

I happened to read this book in parallel with Sapiens (by Yuval Noah Harari). In Sapiens, Harari discusses (among many other things) the reduction in free-time which followed with the agricultural revolution and the cultural myths that make (most of) us live our lives more or less like our neighbours. It was interesting to see how Thoreau challenged these myths and found a new freedom by scaling down his possessions and reduce his needs. Although it was hardly a very remote wilderness he settled in it was still a pronounced deviation from the normal way of life at the time (or today).

As a nature-lover myself I do believe that we are happier when we are living closer to nature (or at least that I am) and thus found myself favourably inclined to Thoreau’s cabin experiment. I also liked the way that he identified and differentiated between his actual needs, such as food and shelter, and stuff he just wanted. As a well-connected young and healthy man he found that he could quite easily earn enough for his actual needs and choose increased freedom rather than trying to earn more. Even if I have no real plans of moving into the woods (for more than vacations), I believe he has a point with this distinction and that a better awareness of the difference between needs and wants could be helpful also in other instances when we need to decide how to spend our life or money.

One of the real treats in the book is his descriptions of the nature around him which are often evocative and beautiful. Otherwise his prose can be preachy and long-winded. Even when I agreed with his point I frequently found him obnoxious and sometimes condescending. His descriptions of other nationalities and ethnicities, especially Native Americans, are also badly outdated, but as Thoreau was an abolitionist and seems to have been genuinely interested in other cultures I suspect that he was still ahead of his time in this aspect.

This book was on my Classics Club reading list. I also count it as my Classic with a single-word title for the Back to the classics reading challenge.

 

 

 

 

Poetry from the deep forests

DSC_1871.JPGI have been a good reader this summer but a worse blogger and I fear that blogging and blog reading will remain slow for the rest of August. However, before I disappear again I want to introduce you to a favorite poet of mine, Dan Andersson.

I guess most readers have some author that transport us back to places we have been to or the people that we were. For me one of those authors is the Swedish poet Dan Andersson (1888-1920). Living abroad I sometimes long for my childhood forests and no-one catches the feeling of those forests like him. Admittedly he wrote about life in the much more impressive nature around the Swedish-Norwegian border, but his texts still feel like home.

I came to think of him as I found a collection of his poetry and ballads while browsing a used bookstore recently, and have been reading it on and off for the last week. Many of the poems depict the nature around his family homes but also the lives of the people around him, especially people on the edges of society. Other poems describe religious doubts and fears. However, what is perhaps most notable about his poetry is their musical properties. Many of his poems have been brilliantly set to music, sometimes by the author himself. I would even argue that some of them only truly shines when sung.
Dan Andersson’s poetry is probably hard to find in a good translation but you may still be able to find and enjoy some of the musical renditions. I especially recommend the ones by Sofia Karlsson!

What about you, do you have any texts that transports you back to a specific time or place?

Focus on the indies – Peirene Press

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Since I started reading book blogs more regularly I have been introduced to a number of interesting independent publishers. I now thought I should do my part and spread the word further, starting with my new favourite, Peirene Press.

Peirene Press focuses on short-format, maximum 200 pages, translated novels and memoirs by mostly European authors. As I prefer shorter novels and aim to read from as many countries as possible, they have been a perfect match. It doesn’t hurt that they are producing reasonably well-made and attractive soft-covers either.

Books I recommend from Peirene Press

I have enjoyed and would recommend all four books I have read from Peirene. However, I will focus on two of them, both dealing with life in the Soviet Union. The fact that I have a more relevant photo to illustrate these books than I do for the other two may or may not have influenced my choice…

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translation by Margita Gailitis)

Soviet Milk is a Latvian novel following a mother and daughter whose relationship has been stunted by the mother’s depression. The novel is a beautiful portrait of their fragile relationship but also a broader commentary about the influence of oppressive regimes on ordinary lives.

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (translation by Delija Valiukenas)

If the previous novel didn’t sound bleak enough I can instead recommend the Lithuanian novel Shadows on the Tundra. It is a well-written memoir which follows then 14-year old Dalia Grinkevičiūtė and her mother and brother during their deportation to the Lena delta in north Siberia. It is a truly horrifying account of the complete disregard for human lives that these deportations involved, but it also a survival story and as such not entirely without hope.

Other books from Peirene Press

From Peirene I have also read and very much enjoyed Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda and Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall. Under the Tripoli Sky, describes a childhood in Tripoli during the 1960s and would be my recommendation if you want to try Peirene Press but want to avoid the heavier themes in some of their other novels.

Have you read any of these books, did you like them? Do you have any recommendations of other books I should read from Peirene Press or suggestions on other indie publishers I should try?

As usual this post has not been sponsored in any way.

 

Midnight’s children

Pink and white rosesWhen I was younger a thick book was a good book. I am a fast reader and I wanted books that would last me awhile. In the library I therefore went directly towards the heavier tomes and longer series. But things have changed, these days I find myself drawn towards the shorter fiction, preferring books with less than 300 pages. If a book approaches 400 pages I get easily distracted and start to read other books in parallel. This was the case for Midnight’s children (538 pages) which I have been reading on and off for several months.

Midnight’s children by Salman Rushdie is an award-winning novel following the protagonist Saleem Sinai who is born on the stroke of midnight of the day India gained independence. His history thus runs parallel to the history of India and events in his own life are often mirrored in Indian history (at least that is how he prefers to tell it). It is a meandering story, moving from the mundane to the magical, from trivial occurrences in the life of Saleem Sinai to major historical events.

I struggled quite a bit with the novel in the beginning. It is very well-written but I got lost among all the names and historical references which I was only vaguely familiar with. I therefore repeatedly put it aside to read other books. Of course that meant that I had forgotten even more names by the time I came back to it. However, about halfway in, the book picked-up pace a bit and I decided to make a concentrated effort to read in it every day. From there on my impression of it greatly improved, I started to know who (almost) everyone were, the story suddenly made sense and I actually enjoyed it. 

It’s not really like any other book I have read but the book I associated it closest with is another book from my Classic Club reading list, Gösta Berling’s Saga by Selma Lagerlöf. The settings couldn’t be more different, in Midnight’s children we follow the protagonist (and his ancestors) over several decades as he moves across India and Pakistan, whereas Gösta Berling’s Saga takes place in Värmland, a sparsely populated Swedish region during a single year. However, both books feature larger than life protagonists, a small touch of magic, and are narrated in a style that stays close to oral tradition. More importantly, they are both more a rich portrait of a country (or a county in Lagerlöf’s case) than a linear story.

First published in 1981, Midnight’s children is one of the youngest books in my Classics Club reading challenge.

This weekend there is also an Indian Literature Readathon arranged by Nandini, Shruti, Charvi and Aditi. Unfortunately I don’t have time to join but head over there if you are interested in Indian reading recommendations.